In late 2008, Tony Curtis was made available to a handful of Australian journalists to talk about his life as a Hollywood star. Phoning in from London, it meant an early start – I was scheduled to speak with him at 4.30am AEST – but the insight that the aging star could offer on life as a Hollywood 'Golden Era' star was invaluable. In light of his passing, his reflections on his own life seem pertinent and deeply moving.
At 84 years of age, he was able to recall the immigrant experience his family lived through upon arriving in New York in 1917. “I imagine my father was just so elated when he came to America. It was such a wonderful country for him to settle down in,” he said. “But it took a long time for the immigrants to acquaint themselves. Nothing changed for the new immigrants; they were treated like they had been treated back in their homeland.”
Breaking away from the old neighbourhood, he thrived within the East Coast theatrical traditions that infused his love of performing as a young man. He recalled the training ground that was the Catskills resort region and their summer theatre troupes, and the pulsating beat of New York City, where he studied with classmates Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Rod Steiger at Manhattan's Dramatic Workshop in the early 1940s. “It wasn't until after I went after (an acting career) personally that I realised how rough, how really, really rough, the experience could be,” he said.
When asked of the experience of returning to his old neighbourhood to shoot Maxwell Shane's City Across the River in 1949, the fire of the young Tony Curtis was lit. “I was going to prove to them and to all those other guys, and some girls, who treated me like garbage, that I was better than that. I was a Jewish boy coming from a family that had nothing.” He fought the anti-Semitism of his schooling days and subsequent career (his autobiography, American Prince, cites stars such as Ray Milland being ill-at-ease with Curtis' faith) with a quiet yet fierce dignity. “It was all over the place. It wasn't anything new or old and I knew exactly how to behave when I ran across it – I just never acknowledged it.” Under the mentorship of one of Hollywood's greatest agent-managers, Lew Wasserman (“The most honourable man”), he rose to the very top of the American film industry.
His filmography is remarkable, but for reasons that aren't always apparent. Graduating from showy, audience-friendly dramas such as Houdini (1953) and Trapeze (1956), he fought hard for the against-type role of Sidney J. Falco in the masterpiece The Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he overcame objections of miscasting to star opposite Kirk Douglas in The Vikings (1958); for the first time in American film history, he secured equal billing for a black actor (good friend Sidney Poitier) in The Defiant Ones (1958). His second masterful portrayal was as Joe/Josephine/Shell Oil Junior in the film many consider the greatest American comedy of all time, Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959); he enjoyed huge commercial success with Operation Petticoat (1959) and overwhelming critical acclaim in the young director Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). A run of middling and/or underperforming films was partially redeemed by his terrifying portrayal of The Boston Strangler (1968), before his career began to ebb with the onset of middle-age. He still featured in studio fare (Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, 1969; Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?, 1970; The Last Tycoon, 1976, opposite Robert De Niro; the cult horror film The Manitou, 1978; and opposite old-friend Matthau in Little Miss Marker in 1980), but he increasingly found himself in TV guest roles and series pilots as age and a new Hollywood regime took control.
Somewhat surprisingly, he named the Blake Edwards-directed comedy The Perfect Furlough (1958) as his personal favourite from his 20-odd years of Hollywood stardom. “It was a whimsical comedy that was extremely funny; it had all the escapades that went on when the war was going on,” he says. Considered by most critics to be a fun but rather minor entry in his career, his particular fondness for the film may have been the result of a bout of melancholy. “My first wife was with me in it.” Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis caused a stir when they wed in 1951 – at one point, studio heads tried to match him to Piper Laurie to help promote their film, The Prince Who Was A Thief (1951) – but the couple soon emerged as Hollywood's most glamourous pairing and would have two daughters, Jamie Lee and Kellie, before separating in 1962.
He found happiness and stability in his sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, whom he wed in 1998 and referred to as his “sweet, innocent spirit”. When I pointed out that his autobiography read very much like a love letter to her, he was moved: “Oh my, sir, I am so happy that you should see that and say that. You are so kind.”
Tony Curtis was a tremendous showman and knew his audience well. He concluded the interview by promising to visit Australia. “Oh yes, absolutely. As soon as things quiet down here, I am going to grab that beautiful woman and fly right down to Australia and spend time there and do that whole portion of the world!” Sadly, he never got to fulfil that promise, though his memory and film legacy will remind us of his natural skill and talent as an actor and his good humour and integrity as a gentleman.